By Miriam Levitin, Sexual Health Promotion Coordinator, Habif Health and Wellness Center
MSW Candidate 2021
Whether it’s from the media or our schools, families, or religious communities, it’s no secret that we are taught shameful messages about sex. For those who receive sex education growing up at all, most are told that abstinence is the only option. Abstinence can and should be taught as part of a comprehensive sexuality curriculum because it is a great way to avoid potential unwanted outcomes of sexual activity (such as pregnancy and STIs), as well as a valid choice for anyone at any age to make at any time. But we shouldn’t be taught that it’s the only option—it’s just one option that works well for some people at different points in their lives. In fact, 36.5% of WashU students who completed the National College Health Assessment in March of 2020 reported that they had not had a sexual partner in the past 12 months.
Working toward a more sexually healthy campus does not mean promoting that everyone should be having sex all the time. It means ensuring that people have all the information and resources they need to make informed choices about their sexual behavior—and, if everyone involved consents, respecting those choices.
One aspect of shaming is entitlement—to know about people’s sexual behavior, and to judge with whom, when, and why they choose or choose not to have sex. However, we need to understand that people make choices for different reasons. Some reasons people choose to have sex are for fun, to express love, or build connection. Some reasons people choose not to have sex are to avoid potential unwanted outcomes, to wait for a meaningful relationship or marriage, or because they don’t experience sexual attraction or interest.
Certain people—such as those socialized as women—are often shamed for having sex, which can negatively impact their sexual health. If you’re struggling with feelings of shame around your sexuality, there are resources—like therapy and books—that can help. Afrosexology suggests confronting sexual shame with ABCD — Acknowledge the source of the message, Be compassionate with yourself, Challenge the message, and Develop pleasure practices. Read more here.
People are also shamed for not having sex. This begins with the concept of “virginity” in general, which is entirely a social construct. Virginity means different things to different people, in different places and across time. There is no medical, scientific definition of virginity or evidence that anything is “lost” when someone engages in sex for the first time. You cannot tell whether someone has engaged in any types of sex acts from looking at their body. And defining “losing virginity” as having penis-in-vagina intercourse excludes the many ways people choose to have sex.
Overall, people choose or choose not to have sex at different points throughout their lives. For example, someone who has engaged in sex in the past might choose abstinence now. Let’s combat the expectation that there is one timeline in which we should all participate in sex and dating. Whatever you choose is the right choice for you, and we should all respect that.